“Momma, why are you crying? You won,” said the 5-year-old boy. Yes, she had won, Kristin Armstrong acknowledged: At age 43 she had captured her third Olympic gold medal in cycling. “So why are you crying?” her son persisted. Good question, with many answers.
For Armstrong, it was in part the emotional impact of participating and winning in her third Olympics, showing that someone her age could still excel in a young people’s sport. For another Olympian, Rafaela Silva, the tears were for her gold medal in judo, Brazil’s first of these Games. For nearly all of the medal winners who find their eyes welling up during the playing of their national anthem, it is a feeling not only of self-realization but also of being part of something larger than themselves.
In recent decades, there has been a pattern to the way many of us regard the coming of the Olympics. For months before the Games, there are news articles about the unpreparedness of the host nation. There are reports of doping and rumors of doping. There is condemnation of the corruption of the Games, of the excesses of nationalism, the cheating by government bodies, and the rampant commercialism. It seems at times as if the whole thing is so fraught with greed and cynicism that it should simply be abandoned.
And then they light the torch, and suddenly the worldwide television audience is caught up with a fascination not only for the Games we know but for all the myriad sports we may not even have heard of and certainly don’t make a habit of watching. Swimming, largely a matter of Saturday morning meets for pool denizens all over this country, suddenly becomes of riveting national interest.
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Did you ever think you’d spend an hour or two watching table tennis? Many have been doing so, along with archery, air rifle competition, water polo, rowing, equestrian events and the more widely popular sports: soccer, golf, basketball, track and field. All are contested at a level of skill that astonishes and with an intensity that can be both uplifting and, when it ends in defeat, deeply saddening to those who have devoted much of their youth to a dream that for most is unlikely to net even a medal, let alone fame and wealth. There’s no crying in badminton, you say? In the Olympics there is.
These are the people who keep the torch up and out of the muck, and they are the ones we watch and celebrate these days.